Twenty years ago, in that carefree era before TiVo and the internet hatched their separate plots to lay waste to the TV advertising model, an old-fashioned ratings slump had network executives thrashing at night on their Egyptian cotton sheets. On the eve of a bidding war that would see the average rights fee soar 150%, a sudden unforeseen drop in National Football League deliveries set off a chain reaction of aggrieved rationalization, imprudent finger-pointing and general doomsaying. As viewers seemingly began to lose interest in football, spooked network suits more or less went through Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief, although they fumbled the ball before coming to terms with the whole "acceptance" thing.
Last season, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as NFL ratings went retrograde. During the first nine weeks of the 2016 season, overall deliveries fell 12% versus the year-ago period, thanks in large part to a string of significant ratings declines in the primetime packages. Household ratings for NBC's "Sunday Night Football" dropped 20% in the nine weeks before the presidential election, while ESPN's "Monday Night Football" fell 19% in the network's target demo of adults 25 to 54, and the multi-network "Thursday Night Football" package fared little better. Suddenly the one product that was thought to be wholly immune to the ravages of TV's ongoing ratings affliction seemed as vulnerable as any wheezy sitcom or insipid melodrama.
As was the case in 1997, the process of apportioning blame for the ratings crunch was noisy and ill-considered. Twenty years ago, the networks jabbed their forefingers in the direction of Nielsen, claiming that a recent expansion of the company's sample size had botched their NFL numbers. This time around, much of the griping had to do with the sideline activism of a backup quarterback who didn't take a single snap in the three national TV windows in which his (now former) team was featured. Colin Kaepernick made for a convenient scapegoat, but that fan-sentiment narrative more or less falls apart in light of the NFL's postelection ratings rally. With the political histrionics out of the way, a rebound in primetime and steadfast viewership of the Sunday afternoon games on CBS and Fox kept the overall bleed to a more manageable negative 8%.
For all that, TV buyers believe that NFL ratings will once again take a bit of a hit this year, although the troughs aren't expected to be nearly as deep as those recorded in the first half of last season. Buyers say that "Sunday Night Football," which closed out its 11th season on NBC down 11% in the 18-to-49 demo, is likely to dip just a few 10ths of a ratings point, or about 3%, from its year-ago 7.0 rating, while its six-game "Thursday Night Football" package is expected to match its 2016 deliveries. Meanwhile, CBS's "TNF" games are projected to be down negligibly compared with the 5.8 rating they delivered last year in the network's core 25-to-54 demo (as with NBC's Thursday totals, that number includes all NFL Network simulcasts), and ESPN's "Monday Night Football" would appear to be in a position to rebound from last season's 12% demo skid.
"ESPN got hosed last year," says one NFL buyer. "The schedule wasn't all that strong to begin with and every week it seemed like they had a blowout on their hands. … They look like they were dealt a better hand this time."
Indeed, ESPN a year ago was saddled with a bunch of stinkers, and the scoreboard tells the whole malodorous tale. In 2016, the average margin of victory in "Monday Night Football" games was 14.9 points, compared with just 7.1 the previous year, and only six of the network's 17 regular-season broadcasts were competitive past the third quarter. And given that the average Vegas spread for that same slate of games was just 4.9 points, even degenerate gamblers didn't stick around for the final gun. Shave even five or six minutes of viewing from the fourth quarter, and the average program ratings will sag noticeably.
What gets lost in all the talk about the primetime football packages are the powerhouse 4:20 p.m. games on Fox and CBS. Per Nielsen, those 16 national Sunday afternoon windows last season averaged 23.7 million viewers, or nearly 10 million more than the most-watched scripted series, "The Big Bang Theory."
This weirdly overlooked window is where any lingering pessimism about the NFL ratings picture effectively crumples like a wide receiver getting pasted by a safety on an over-the-middle route. Featuring no fewer than six Dallas Cowboys matchups, Fox's 4:20 p.m. "America's Game of the Week" showcase once again has the potential to put up some jaw-dropping numbers. The 13-to-3 Cowboys last season were the NFL's most popular TV franchise, averaging 24.4 million viewers and a 13.4 household rating in their 12 national broadcasts. Shot through with the most elite teams in the NFC (also on the schedule are the Packers, Falcons and Seahawks), the Fox roster all but guarantees that "America's Game of the Week" will claim its ninth consecutive year as TV's most-watched, highest-rated individual program.
Buyers are circling Oct. 8 on their calendars, as all eyes will be on that Sunday's Cowboys-Packers air war. Last year's Dallas-Green Bay broadcast on Fox scared up a whopping 28 million viewers and a 15.8 household rating, making it the highest-rated regular-season game. Any meeting of these two teams is an event, but as Fox Sports President, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Producer Eric Shanks points out, there's a welcome historical wrinkle to consider heading into this year's showdown.
"Only five times since 1970 have the Packers and the Cowboys gone into the next season both as champions of their respective divisions," Shanks says. "The last time it happened, we set all kinds of ratings records."
And buyers aren't sleeping on CBS's coast-to-coast package either. The No. 2 national NFL window boasts three Oakland Raiders slugfests, including a blockbuster Nov. 19 showdown with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots that may very well prove to be a preview of the AFC Championship Game. (Failing that, the Dec. 17 Pats-Steelers game should do the trick.) Two years after appearing in just a single nationally televised game, Oakland is getting the sort of exposure commensurate with its status as a Super Bowl contender, slated to take the field in nine national broadcasts. Boasting a fan base as rabid as those that support Dallas and Pittsburgh, the Raiders are expected to bring some ratings heat to each of the five NFL broadcast packages.
CBS also has an X factor in newly minted lead analyst Tony Romo. The retired Cowboys quarterback joins Jim Nantz in the booth, replacing longtime broadcaster (and social media pincushion) Phil Simms.
"I can see people tuning in early on for Romo," says one buyer. "It's not a primary consideration, but I think fans are going to want to see how he handles himself. And I'm not going to tear down Simms, but it was time for a change." The Nov. 5 Kansas City-Dallas game will be of particular interest, as it marks the first time Romo will call a game played by his former teammates.
If the net ratings ultimately come in a bit shy of last season's disappointing results (early estimates see total NFL deliveries receding by another 2% to 4%, although that doesn't account for the addition of out-of-home ratings to the Nielsen sample), it's worth noting that in-game ad revenue in 2016 actually increased by about 4% to an estimated $3.36 billion. All the Chicken Little chatter aside, for the NFL, it's business as usual.